Seven

"En garde!"

Gripping her epee tightly, Cassy flexed her knees and lifted her left arm in the air as her instructor, M. Fournier, had taught her. Her throat closed with nervous apprehension as the small, wiry Frenchman assumed the first position. Sunlight streamed through the tall windows of the ballroom, glittering on the blade of the slender epee she clutched in her right hand. It seemed to sparkle with deadly intent.

"No, no," he said in a despondent manner. "You are holding the blade wrong." Because of his high, nasal accent, it sounded like he had said, "None, none. Hue are olding ze blade wrong."

A large mat had been spread on the floor in the ballroom where she received her fencing lessons, and the instructor had inked a mark on its surface to indicate where she was to stand. Cassy tried to keep her stockinged feet near the mark and concentrate on M. Fournier at the same time.

This was her first lesson, and she wore cork told on the blunt end of her blade, as well as a mask and padded vest. It was de rigueur, Fournier insisted, for his lordship to be well protected.

Still, Cassy could not help a chill of fright as she faced him with determination to prove herself worthy. Her mind was consumed with a fierce hunger to prove herself. Her head swam with his instructions on where to place her feet, and how to hold her body, and she tried to remember it all as she waited for what Fournier had refered to as thrust, or was that a feint? Whichever, she was to then parry, sliding her blade up and under his and turning it away without harm. It seemed simple enough.

But it wasn't. Because she also messed it up. She went past her line and it nicked her sending her to the floor. Fournier looked most upset as he helped her up from the floor, and erupted into a steam of french that she didn't understand.

Cassy gazed at him helplessly until he subsided and said more calmly, "Non, non, my lord, you must avoid ze blade, not seek it out!"

"I was," she murmured sheepishly. "Or I thought I was."

"Sacrebleu!" Fournier muttered, and wiped his face with a handkerchief before indicating they were to begin again.

"Ze art of fencing is a delicate one," he said, keeping his eyes on her and bringing the blade up slowly. "You must regard ze blade as an extension of your own arm, not otherwise. It moves with you, and must be carried with the movement of your feet, my lord."

Her subsequent attempts left Fournier in such a rage that he quit her lessons half an hour before he was supposed to do so. Sheldon signed his regret and accepted Fournier's scathing comments on Lord Levington's inability to wield an epee with any Grace or skill. Cassy stood by in glum silence. So much for impressing Eastland with her skill at fencing. Perhaps there was something she could excel at well enough to take his mind off his objective.

It was not, unfortunately, her equestrian skills.

Garbed in her new garments for which she had been measured by a tailor who had become quite nonplussed, then sympathetic when lord Levington had informed him of a tragic injury that left a certain portion of the anatomy very ticklish, Cassy strode unhappily toward the stables, where she was to meet Eastland that afternoon. Her new boots fit perfectly, which she regarded as only a minor point in her favor. The bootmaker had informed Eastland that his new ward had very slender feet for a youth, and the Duke had seemed to find that irritating, too.

Smith had Black saddled and ready, and was standing with him inside a railed enclosure, next to the stable. She strode toward the big black stallion with firm steps. She could see the duke from one corner of her eyes as he stood talking with Pym, the head groom, who was attired in a soft tweed jacket and felt hat. Eastland was bare headed, and the sun glided his head with a golden sheen that made her breath catch. He was really too handsome to be as arrogant and hateful as he was. And of course, he was English instead of American.

When she reached the horse, she asked Smith softly, "is there anything else I should know before I ride him?"

"Aye, prayers," Smith said with a solemn shake of his head, then added quickly, "just didn't kick him in the flanks, my lord. It'll put you on the ground in a wink if you do."

"Where are the flanks?" Cassy asked desperately, but the duke was approaching and Smith only had time to point.

"So, Levington," the duke said, coming to stand beside her. "Show us what you can do."

Cassy managed a weak smile and a nod. "I'll do my best, your grace."

His eyebrow lifted with cool arrogance. "I expect no less from you, Levington."

Cassy turned blindly, barely remembering to put her left foot in the stirrup, and reached up to grab hold of the saddle to heave herself up. The stallion snorted and danced nervously to one side, forcing her to stumble after him in a kind of hop. Her face flamed, and she gripped the riding crop she held tightly in her right hand, determined not to allow the horse to humiliate her in front of the duke.

Smith held the horse's head, and was whispering to him quietly, stroking his muzzle to calm him. Cassy could feel the stallion's muscles ripple with agitation, and had to swallow her fear. It would never do to let the horse or the duke know how frightened she was.

"Your grace, perhaps lord Levington will be more suited to a mount more tame than this," Pym said nervously, eyeing Black with a trepidatious look.

"Lord Levington is actually an excellent rider," Eastland said with a sardonic smirk. "Or at least that's what I've been told to believe."

Swallowing her nervousness, Cassy focused on the task at hand. This time, her effort to mount the horse was more successful, and she swung atop his back with a fairly graceful motion. Smith gave her the reins and she took them in one hand, inhaling deeply to steady her nerves as she lightly touched her heals to the stallions sides.

For a moment, Black reared viciously. Cassy felt her heart lurch to her throat, and she tightened her grip on the reins while nudging it slowly in the side. To her surprise, the horse settled, starting off at a slow, sedate walk, circling the open enclosure at a smooth pace. Cassy began to relax slightly, trying to remember Smith's advice.

"Heels in, toes out, balance on the balls of my feet, move with the motion of the animal . . ." She muttered under her breath, and the stallion responded beautifully.

Cassy flashed the duke a triumphant glance, and saw his slight smile of approval. Behind him, Pym was grinning widely at her. Her heart leaped. The sun seemed suddenly brighter, and the wind softer. At last, something had gone right for her. The knot in her chest loosened, and she relaxed into the saddle more.

She could feel the smooth, rhythmic movements of the horse beneath her, and tried to concentrate on her balance and form. What was it Smith had said? Something about keeping a firm hand on the reins, but not too firm, and only increase the pressure of the knee if a greater pace was desired.

After circling the paddock twice, Cassy brought the stallion up toward the rail fence with no trouble at all. She pulled back gently on the reins and the animal stopped  almost immediately. It had been a huge success so far, and she would be glad to dismount.

Master Pym, impressed in spite of himself, half turned to the duke to congratulate him on his ward's gentle hand. A sudden gust of wind picked Pym's hat from his head before he could catch it, and whirled it into the air. It sailed beyond his reach, skimming past the stallion's nose, startling the animal.

Suddenly, nothing was alright again.

Cassy barely heard Pym's shout, or saw Smith run toward her as the horse gave an almighty leap, hooves pounding into the ground as it reared. She saw very little suddenly, but a whirling blur of trees, sky, and hard brown earth. Somehow, she would never know quite how, she managed to cling to the saddle with both hands, dropping her ridding crop in the process, losing the reins, and her seat. The cantle of the saddle prodded her stomach and her legs draped over the rump of the horse in a most undignified manner, slamming her bootheels against his flanks.

Black reared straight up then landed on his forefeet with a slamming jerk that jarred Cassy's teeth and made even her eyeballs dance. When he pivoted on his front legs, his rump in the air, Cassy slid forward with a swiftness that was startling. Her nose rammed against the cantle of the saddle and forced a shrill shriek from her lungs.

Black took off like an arrow, shooting past the short fence and galloping away to freedom. Smith yelled wildly behind her, but they were already several yards away, heading towards a small cluster of trees. Terrified that they’ll crash into one of them, Cassy gave a mad tug at the reins, forcing the horse into an aggressive halt. It’s rear limbed jerked up, and suddenly Cassy was flung from the saddle and straight into the trunk of the tree. Her vision darkened, and for one horrible moment she imagined that she was dead. But then her vision flooded, first with leaves and then the roots of the tree. And then there was Black, charging at her with its head lowered.

It was Eastland who saved her from complete ignominy, grasping the stallions dangling reins suddenly, pulling it to a fierce halt. Smith grasped Cassy around her waist and tried to convince her to stand it she could.

"Lord Levington," she dimly heard him saying, "can you stand? Can you move, my lord . . ."

Cassy gradually became aware that the stallion had stopped his series of hops and leaps, and recognized Smith's voice. She sagged into the stable boy's arms with a gratitude she had not known she could possess. Her nose hurt terribly, and she put up one hand to touch it. Her fingers came away smeared with blood.

"Oh! I t'ink I b'oke my node!" She wailed.

Looking up, Cassy happened to meet the Duke's frowning gaze, and knew her moment of triumph was over too soon. He shoved the stallion's reins toward Smith and told him to take the horse back to the paddock, then strode to Cassy.

"Let me see, Levington," he commanded, and she slowly took her hands away from her face. "Don't look so stricken. A broken nose might lend some masculinity to your face," the Duke said dryly, and Cassy shuddered.

She shut her eyes tightly as the duke examined her nose and proclaimed it bruised but unbroken. He pressed his handkerchief into her hand and told her to use it to stop the bleeding. Hot tears stung her eyelids, and when she opened her eyes again, she saw from the Duke's face that he wasn't at all pleased.

Behind him, Master Pym was still laughing. He had shouted himself hoarse, and deep chuckles still shook his stout body, renewing each time he glanced toward Cassy. It did not take much intelligence to see that Eastland was furious with her performance. His face was dark with anger and his green eyes glittered coldly.

"Go into the house, Levington," the duke ordered her. "And tell Smith you are to be rubbed down with liniment."

Backing away, Cassy knew she would never pass along the last, but did not seem to be in time to argue with him. She fled from the scene, still smarting from her failure and her sore nose.

She didn't see the duke round on Master Pym, nor did she hear his low, short words, bitten off in a cold tone that ended the head groom's laughter instantly.

"I consider your reactions those of a fool, Pym. Your carelessness could have cost me a good horse, not to mention my ward's safety. You are dismissed immediately. See Sheldon about your wages.

"But your grace!" Pym began in shocked amazement, then stopped when the duke turned back to him with narrowed eyes and a thinned mouth. "Nothing, your grace," Pym muttered, looking away. "Sorry your grace."

Cassy ran and ran, hot tears burning at the corners of her eyes. She hated herself for crying, and she hated herself for hating herself. She ran until the stables were far behind her, and she continued to run until her lungs burned and her legs gave out underneath here. There she remained, a pitiful sight, curling up into a ball and sobbing her heart out.

Never had she been humiliated before in her entire life. It wasn’t the fact that her lie had come undone that pained her so. It was the disgust she saw in his eyes. The way he looked at her like she was a pathetic little child he’d been unfortunate enough to be saddled with. She saw the embarrassment reflected in his eyes, and it’d burned a hole through her. Why, oh why, did she ever agree to come to England in the first place? She should have stayed in Virginia, where life was so much more simple and a lot more bearable.

The sun was beginning to dip when Cassy finally gathered herself, sitting on the grass and curling her knees up to her chest. Her face was wet with tears, her eyes swollen and her broken nose throbbing painfully. Gingerly, she reached out to touch it , wincing as it smarted.

A cold wind blew past suddenly, and she looked up to stare at the small lake in front of her, the water glittering with the last light of dusk. She’d never been to this part of the duke’s estate, and she took her time watching the water, ignoring the dull pain all over her face. The grass was cool on her feet, and the wind from the lake smelled sweet and earthy, relaxing her agitation. The water rippled, splashing this way and that. And across it, several yards away, an old manor loomed in the distance.

Perhaps all this would have been better if she’d simply agreed with master Nicholas and come to England to wed the duke. Jonathan wouldn’t have gone through all these humiliations she had to suffer everyday. He would have excelled in the dukes eyes, earning his approval almost immediately.

A few more months, she told herself. That was all it would take.

Suddenly, Cassy felt the urge to swim. She looked around briefly, making sure she was alone. It wouldn’t do if she were found like this. Hurriedly, before the moment passed, she stripped out of her dirty clothes and plunged into the water. The coldness frightened her, biting at her skin and surrounding her completely. She sank into the water, allowing the silence underneath to hug her. When she came up for air, it was a welcome reprieve, and she felt fresh; clean. The water seemed to have seeped into her skin, cleaning her out from within.

And then she saw him.

He was sitting on the other side, on the grass just like she’d been a while ago. He was watching her, and he knew she knew he was watching her. He was too far away for her to see his face, but she could guess the look in his eyes.

Even from afar, Colin Geoffrey looked just the way she remembered. He was as relaxed as one could be, his self confidence traveling across the water and hitting her square in the face.

The fear came slowly, because she’d been afraid ever since she peeled off her clothes. She’d expected that she’ll be found, and thus when he saw her, the fear was slow in arriving.

But then Colin did something surprising.

He stood up, stared at her for several seconds, and then he brought his finger to his lips. Cassy watched the movement with a detached awe, unable to do anything else but watch him.

And just like that, he turned around and left.

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